The ancient world meets modern cartography

November 3, 2000

It took ten years and more than 70 compilers. Richard Talbert explains the genesis and fruition of The Barrington Atlas .

How do you divest the world of centuries of change and recreate the physical and cultural landscape of the Greeks and Romans? It is a painstaking task and one that has not been completed successfully for more than 130 years. But this month, a comprehensive set of detailed maps becomes available for everyone with an interest in ancient Greece and Rome and the cultures they interacted with over the period of a millennium and a half, from 1000BC to AD640.

The 99 maps, published as The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World by Princeton University Press, bring together state-of-the-art cartographic technology and the cutting edge of classical and archaeological scholarship. Most strikingly, they restore the great river deltas, coastlines and valleys that have been transformed by years of progress and strip away modern features such as railways, man-made lakes and reservoirs. So it is an unfamiliar but more "real" world that confronts today's user.

Each map has a directory to document every place and feature marked (offered both on CD-Rom and in print format). Together, atlas and directory give a remarkable new vision of the entire arc from the British Isles to India and deep into North Africa - one that will form the foundation for research and reference far into the 21st century.

With so many advances since the 1870s - mapping, printing and knowledge of the ancient world have all undergone increasingly rapid transformations - it is fair to ask why such a basic tool as this was not created sooner. In fact, there have been several attempts. In 1980, a leading classical studies body, the American Philological Association, boldly commissioned an initiative to fill the embarrassing void. But it stumbled after a few years, unable to match scholarly ideals with production capacity and budget. When I consented to give it a fresh start in 1988, the likelihood of yet another failure seemed high. Among interested colleagues, no agreement about what should be done was in sight, still less of how it would get done in practice.

Given the urgent need for so much catch-up, my conclusion was that we should aim to produce an atlas volume (not just a set of loose sheets) spanning the entire classical world and using the minimum number of scales; moreover, it needed to be ready by the new millennium, and priced within reach of individual purchasers.

These were the goals of a plan adopted in 1990, the same year that the contract with Princeton was signed. Success depended upon the development of four main interlocking components.

First, a creative partnership with professional cartographers had to be forged from the outset. The company, now called, thus became the project's map producer, designing everything from scratch, wheedling map bases out of reluctant military authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, and, above all, exploiting digital technology as it proceeded to revolutionise cartography during the 1990s. There was long-term continuity of personnel at MapQuest, they unfailingly met deadlines, and their consistently skilled contribution was fundamental to completion of the work.

But they needed compilations supplied by experts on the ancient history and archaeology of each area to come up with the finished product. Getting a team of such scholars together was the second main component. To assemble this worldwide had its difficulties, but they were eased by ten colleagues who undertook to oversee the mapping of different regions and helped recruit more than 70 other expert compilers.

Each map had its own problems. Some areas were well documented through archaeological discoveries. Others have been closed for decades because of war or political turmoil. Some are the subject of ongoing digs so information had to be updated monthly. And others are now under water and cannot be explored.

Once completed, all the draft maps were sent to 90 or so independent evaluators for review. Inevitably, the real headache was to get many of the compilers to complete and submit their drafts in the first place, and then to achieve the desired consistency of presentation. An immense amount of interchange with compilers was required at every stage from first draft through second proof - inquiring, cajoling, nagging, all speeded up as never before by fax and later email. In fact, not till the summer of 1998 was the very last of the 99 compilations submitted; only then was there finally an end to the nightmare thought that we might never go to press.

The third component was effective coordination. In the early 1990s, to find space for a project office on or near the North Carolina University campus in Chapel Hill was like searching for the Holy Grail; in a public university, satisfying state requirements in hiring personnel was almost as daunting. It was a miracle that a group of such talented individuals emerged for both the management side and academic aspects of the work. The project, and the mass of materials it generated, would have foundered without them. Securing a spacious office suite was another stroke of luck; regret at being unable to renew the lease after three years was tempered later when we heard that its entire flat roof had caved in during heavy rains.

There could never be progress, of course, without the fourth component - money. It was an unknown quantity in several respects. To estimate the total required over a decade was hard when so many costs (cartographers' time especially) were unpredictable. There was equally no telling how readily support could be raised. The National Endowment for the Humanities was a natural recourse, although its application procedure is exceptionally demanding, and it takes the best part of a year to reach a decision. Even then, an award seldom extends beyond two years (so that a long-term project always has to reapply), and it will never fund a major project in full. Seeking millions of dollars elsewhere is a still more cruel, more time-consuming enterprise, especially if you are largely on your own (as I was) and have many other preoccupations (such as teaching), not least among them the constant fear that any temporary stoppage for lack of funds could soon become permanent.

Now that the odds against the project have been overcome, what are the lessons learnt? Mostly, I suspect, ones that any pessimist might have predicted - that such a path-breaking initiative brings higher costs and sterner challenges than we ever dared acknowledge at the outset. Does this mean we were fools even to begin? I would say no; we are simply reminded that the dice are loaded against this type of enterprise. So many fragile elements have to be orchestrated. But success is possible. What is exciting is to reach that elusive turning point where everyone involved (donors included) senses that the seemingly impossible can be achieved after all, and they are inspired to ensure that it is.

In this particular case, the special surprise as the project developed was the realisation that finishing it was not the end of the story. Instead, it ought only to be a beginning: as the need for more maps of other types became self-evident, so, too, did the value of updating the existing ones digitally in the light of new discoveries. This is why a permanent Ancient World Mapping Centre is now being established in Chapel Hill to continue building on the foundation laid by the Barrington Atlas. It, in turn, needs space, staff, support. The cycle of securing these vital underpinnings for collaborative research in any discipline is relentless, although this time round we are buoyed by a greater sense of optimism.

The Barrington Atlas is published by Princeton University Press. Richard J. A. Talbert is coordinator and general editor and professor of history and classics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, United States.


In the 1870s, William Smith's Atlas of Ancient Geography Biblical and Classical was published in London and Boston. It was beautifully designed, but a commercial flop because it was so expensive. It was never reprinted. The maps were too early to reflect some of the most important archaeological findings of the late 19th century.

Twentieth-century attempts to map the ancient world included the Tabula Imperii Romani, an international project to map the Roman empire, begun in the 1920s and still continuing.

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